Reflections in Nature: During World War II, chicory was used as coffee substitute | News, Sports, Jobs

The fall flowers that have been appearing for several weeks are now in full bloom. I’m sure you have noticed the chicory, mullein, Queen Ann’s lace, goldenrod, tansy and others along the roadsides and in the fields.

Recently, I heard on the news that the price of coffee is supposed to go sky high. Coffee won’t be rationed as it once was, though. Most people in their 80s and 90s remember when coffee became scarce during World War II and chicory was either used as a substitute for coffee or as an additive to coffee to make it stretch.

After the roots of the chicory plant were dug, they were thoroughly cleaned and then roasted until they split. The dark brown centers were ground and stored in a cool and dry place until used. Chicory coffee can still be purchased in stores today.

The genus name of chicory is Cichorium and comes from the Egyptian word for chicory hendibeh. The species name of intybus comes from Latin, meaning endive, due to the leaves of the chicory plant often eaten in place of endive. Other names for the chicory are: blue sailors, bunk and wild succory. The name succory comes from the Latin word succurrere, meaning to run under and referring to the depth the chicory roots grow.

The Egyptians and Greeks drank chicory coffee, which was known as Liver’s Friend because it was said to be good for both the liver and gallbladder. In Germany, the chicory plant was called “watcher of the road” from the legend about a beautiful young girl that died of a broken heart. She had waited along the roadside, while watching every day for the return of her lover. It is said that the blue chicory flowers grew at the site where the young girl died.

Chicory is a native of Europe, where it was cultivated for cattle food, and for at least 5,000 years, chicory was used for its medicinal and culinary properties. During the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson raised chicory from the seeds that he imported from Italy. Jefferson praised the plant’s value as cattle feed, calling it the greatest acquisition a farmer can have. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century when European settlers came to the United States that chicory came to grow permanently on our shores. Today the blue, square tipped flowers are a common sight along our country roads, but we now consider the plant a weed.

Flower gardeners appreciate the fact that chicory is not a plant that would invade flower gardens. The plant prefers to grow in a dry, sunny location. Linnaeus wrote that the brilliant blue flowers—averaging one and a half to two inches across—bloom for only a few hours each day. Each ray of the flower extending from the center is either notched or jagged on the end. In Bradford County the flowers open approximately between seven and eight in the morning, depending on the weather, and begin to close at noon.

Although all parts of the chicory plant can be used for medicinal purposes and cooking, the best part is the root. The long taproots are best dug in early summer before becoming too woody. The young leaves are best gathered when they first appear and can be used as a poultice to ease swellings, inflammations, pimples and sores. Some say the crushed leaves work best if a little vinegar is added.

All flowers do not produce the same amount of nectar during the day, and certain insects are aware of the flowers that produce the most nectar. Chicory flowers have the most pollen in the mid-morning hours.

Chicory is a rather ragged looking weed that grows to a height of about four feet. The basal leaves are dark green, deeply toothed and taper toward the ends. The upper leaves are much smaller than the lower leaves, and the stems will exude a milky sap when broken.

I read in one book that the chicory flower can be used as a very rough pH indicator, a type of natural litmus paper. To do this, one must stir up an ant hill and then hold the blue flower over the hill. The ants shoot formic acid as a defense mechanism, causing the flower to become pink in color. However the book didn’t say how to keep the biting ants off your body.

It’s hard to believe that the chicory flowers appearing along our roadsides are one of our first fall flowers. While our spring flowers are generally small and fragile, our fall flowers will be tall and tough. The reason for this is that the plants have all summer to grow before blooming.

Today chicory is considered a weed, but with all the history and lore written about this plant, we cannot ignore the fact that our ancestors used it for many purposes. In recent years, scientists have been learning that some of our grandmothers’ homemade medicines do work.

Bill Bower is a retired Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Officer. Read his blog and listen to his podcasts on the outdoors at

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